Letting their guard down
Laura Checkley and Faraz Ayub, stars of Channel 4 prison drama Screw, do time with DQ to discuss the show’s uncensored view of life behind bars and the demands of playing prison officers.
Among all the prison dramas on television, Channel 4 series Screw stands out for being built on a foundation of authenticity. Creator and lead writer Rob Williams has experience teaching and volunteering in prisons, and it’s that inside knowledge that informs many of the events and relationships that drive the series.
Debuting last year, Screw focuses on the prison officers and inmates locked up together inside C Wing at the fictional Long Marsh Prison. The second season, which launched at the end of last month, begins in the wake of the tragic events of S1 that led to the death of an officer.
“As they say, it’s bigger, it’s louder. There’s a lot more drama and a lot more comedy,” says Faraz Ayub, who plays officer Ali Shah.
“It’s always nice going back for a second series. It means this resonated somehow with the audience and you’re walking back into something that people want to watch,” notes Laura Checkley, who plays fellow officer Jackie Stokes. “Just knowing the character better, as an actor, you’re not starting from scratch and you also have a shorthand with your castmates. I was really excited to come back, and popping on that uniform and those shoes felt like no time had passed.”
Ali and Jackie are part of an ensemble that also includes senior officer Leigh Henry (Nina Sosanya), new recruit Rose Gill (Jamie-Lee O’Donnell), Gary Campbell (Stephen Wright) and Don Carpenter (Ron Donachie).
Picking up just weeks after the S1 finale, the second run finds each officer still reeling from the impact of their colleague’s death, affecting their relationships with each other and with the prisoners. Meanwhile, Leigh is forced to deal with rumours of an undercover policeman on the wing – threatening the relative order at Long Marsh amid fears more lives could be at risk.
S2 also steps further into the lives of the individual officers: Jackie is dealing with the end of her affair with Gary, while Ali is hiding a secret in his personal life that brings him closer to Don.
“In season one, Ali’s a very positive character,” says Ayub. “He’s very content. He thrives in that kind of environment. He is very popular and friendly with both prisoners and his fellow prison officers, and you see him as a positive force. Nothing really gets him down.”
However, Toby’s death leads to emotional and physical changes in Ali. “We know the positivity is still there, but we see a darker aspect [of his character],” Ayub continues. “Ron is basically there as a guiding light for Ali. Hopefully the audiences will enjoy their bond, and it’s great because they are two very different people from two very different worlds. They shouldn’t be friends but, at the same time, you can’t think of two people who get along better.”
“Some characters are dealing with the death of Toby better than others, and Jackie is definitely one of those,” says Checkley. “She’s a ‘get on with it’ kind of gal. But we left her putting an end to the relationship she had with Gary. That’s still very much ongoing, and all I can say is it gets very complicated.
“Jackie’s got some really hard-hitting storylines this season, and you’re going to see a different side to her. You’re going to see a much more vulnerable side to her. She’s still got brilliant one-liners. She’ll never lose those – she’s a working-class woman with great wit. But in the first season, I didn’t feel like Jackie really got a big moment. She’s got plenty this season. It’s all just going off on another level.”
Like all prison dramas, Screw doesn’t shy away from the more dangerous aspects of prison life – the first two episodes feature an arson attack and an attempted stabbing. But the series, produced by STV Studios, also laces the action with numerous moments of humour, largely thanks to the relationships between the officers.
“It’s testament to Rob’s writing and his skill in doing that,” Checkley says. “You can tell everything comes from an authentic place with him because he spent many years volunteering and working in prisons.
“This is an uncensored look at the prison system and those serving it. If you speak to any prison officer, they’ll tell you humour is really important in their job. Rob has witnessed that first-hand, so how can you not laugh at finding a prisoner getting up to something – which isn’t violent – that they shouldn’t be doing? Because of his real-life experience, he knows exactly where to place those laughs and for them not to undercut any of the heart and the intensity of the drama.”
Both actors describe the demands of making Screw as “intense.” The four-month shoot for S2 took place both on location outside Petershead Prison – the former-prison-turned-museum that doubles for the exterior of Long Marsh – and inside the purpose-built, three-storey set at Kelvin Hall in Glasgow.
Returning for the second season, Ayub and Checkley had meetings with the show’s production team about the story and their characters’ own arcs before building their performances based on what happens in the script. For Ayub, that meant getting into Ali’s changed mindset – and undergoing a very physical transformation.
“When you get the first script, you start to think a lot about the character. And for me, Ali is very emotionally different from where he was in season one,” he explains. “I thought that would be reflected in him physically – I thought he’d be mentally and physically lethargic. He’s let himself go a little bit. He’s not caring too much [about his appearance].
“So I went on a diet of apple pies and a few too many beef burgers. I wanted viewers to see he was in that state. And for it to be an honest portrayal, I had to bring that level of detail. He’s so removed from where he was in season one to now and, as you see in the show, he’s outside of his environment and comfort zone. It felt important for that physical aspect to be there.”
Checkley praises the “collaborative” process behind the series, adding that her ideas about what might be in store for her character were always positively received.
“I had a conversation with Rob at the end of the first season about where Jackie could perhaps go and what might happen, and he ended up exploring that actually, which is really great,” she says. “It feels like a real collaborative process, and Rob’s really open to listening to what we think.”
Taking up the role of Jackie, the actor was surprised to learn of the number of female officers, like Jackie, Leigh and Rose, who work in male prisons. But as soon as she read the script, “I just knew this woman,” she says. “Most of the women in my family are Jackie or bits of Jackie. She’s in every working-class woman I’ve ever met, and that matriarchal quality she has [is there] in a lot of women in my family.”
A fan of prison-set series, Checkley says her “morbid” obsession with prisons was also developed by frequent stays at her grandmother’s house, which backed onto London’s notorious Wormwood Scrubs prison.
“When this [audition] came through, I thought, ‘Oh my God, please let me get this.’ I love prison dramas,” Checkley says. “When you walk on that set, and when all the supporting artists come on, they’re so brilliantly cast, sometimes it feels like there’s no acting required because it just feels so real.
“I hadn’t stepped inside a prison, but because I’ve been obsessed with them and watched the dramas, I felt like I knew that world. But what I love about Screw is that when we have seen prison dramas in the past, the prison officers are always really archetypal ‘get in your cell’ types. They’re never on the prisoners’ side, or you might get a dodgy screw or whatever.
“In Screw, there’s more humanity to them. They’re just real people serving the public and often forgotten about. Sometimes if you’ve got a little break [during filming], you might sit in one of the cells. It’s not even real cell, it’s twice the size of a real cell, and you think, ‘I couldn’t do this. I couldn’t do time.’”
“Whenever I mention it’s not an actual prison, people are always shocked, which is a tribute and a credit to the set designers,” adds Ayub, whose feature film Sky Pearls is debuting at this month’s Venice Film Festival. “Sometimes the environment can impact on an actor’s characterisation and help you or even hinder you in terms of where you need to be. I’m actually very glad it is a set and not an actual prison, as you need that time to step off because it is so real.”
Both actors believe that authenticity is one of the keys to Screw’s success. “It felt really real and honest,” says Checkley, who recently starred on stage in Hope Has a Happy Meal at London’s Royal Court Theatre. “It has everything a good drama has, and the characters are at the heart of it. You want to sit with those characters in that staff room having a laugh. What season two will bring is just loads more danger, and it’s exciting. All the brilliant character-driven stuff, none of that’s gone. It’s just stepped up a gear. You’re going to want to binge it. You’re going to need to see what happens next.”
Meanwhile, Ayub points to Ali’s scenes with Don as his favourites in S2. “It’s a very touching relationship. There will be a lot of heartwarming moments,” he says. “But all the characters, they are so unique, awesome, funny and warm. In season two, you’re going to see that on a bigger scale, on a funnier scale and on a more touching scale.”